“But what a melodrama,” says one of the characters in director Dominik Graf’s “Beloved Sisters,” a film about a poet and his ménage à trois with two sisters. What’s astonishing is how little actual drama there is when Caroline von Beulwitz (Hannah Herszsprung) shares Friedrich Schiller (Florian Stetter), the husband of her sister, Charlotte von Lengefeld (Henriette Confurius). Instead, a narrator walks the audiences through the romance as the trio happily exchanges letters, with the only struggles in the relationship arising from outside the inseparable trio for most of the film.
Their triangle seems to be a thoroughly modern arrangement, and Graf’s directorial choices reflect that. Titles in a contemporary font float into the screen, while the camera zooms in a way that isn’t traditionally done in films set in the 18th century, thanks to work from director of photography Michael Wiesweg. It infuses the German film with an immediacy that’s rare for a costume drama, but much of that feeling is scuttled by the the deliberately slow pace and nearly three-hour runtime. It feels modern, but it lacks the energy of recent films like “Jane Eyre,” “Wuthering Heights,” and “Pride and Prejudice.”
The film is based on Schiller’s real-life romance with these women, but it seems to fill in a lot of historical blanks with Graf’s screenplay. “Beloved Sisters” begins in autumn 1787, when younger sister Charlotte leaves her native Rudolstadt for Weimar, to train with her godmother (Maja Maranow) in the rules of society. Nobly born, but with little money in the family, Charlotte aims to become a lady of the court. She writes letters to Caroline and misses her terribly, while her older sister is stuck in a marriage she agreed to only for her family’s financial benefit. Charlotte’s Weimar stay becomes more interesting when she meets famed, poor poet Schiller. She invites him to return with her to her home, where he meets Caroline and affection (and passion) grows between the three.
“I love you both, Caroline, Charlotte,” Schiller says, and they attempt to make the relationships work. For much of the film, all conflict resides outside the bond that Caroline, Charlotte, and Schiller share. The poet must extricate himself from a relationship with a former mistress, and he needs legitimate employment before marrying the younger sister. Caroline, her servant, and her sister all try to hide her affair from her oft-absent husband. Within the triangle, nothing appears to threaten any of the relationships, with the most important one being the connection between the two sisters. The later conflict should make things more interesting than the film’s first half according to the rules of screenwriting, but it somehow has the opposite effect. “Beloved Sisters” is at its strongest when the relationship between the three blossoms and continues to strengthen, but it gets a bit dull when it focuses more on Caroline’s own growing success as a writer and the shifts in the trio’s dynamics.
Language and writing are at the heart of “Beloved Sisters,” whether it’s the frequent use of letters, the von Lengefeld women’s tendency to slip into French to conceal their conversation from the lower class (both their servants and Schiller), or the writing of Schiller and Caroline. Words glide across the screen to announce new locations and times. The coded correspondences between the sisters and their love play a major role, confounded those on the outside, while strengthening the bonds between the three lovers.
“Beloved Sisters” should appeal to fans of films such as “A Royal Affair” or “Bright Star,” though it’s more a long diversion than a drama that remains in its audience’s hearts and minds. Herszsprung, Confurius, and Stetter are all capable actors, but they can’t elevate their characters into humans who capture our imagination–or even our sympathies. Graf’s screenplay (and history) leaves us with characters who make questionable choices, often the least of which is their relationship. The melodrama finally appears at the end, and it left our eyes looking for an escape while simultaneously rolling toward the ceiling. “Beloved Sisters” might scratch your costume drama itch, but it’s not among the genre’s best. [B-]